Theological Formation

Whilst how I arrive to certain beliefs are multilayered and nuanced, I will nonetheless sketch out a brief of how I arrive to theological beliefs. 

I start by trusting that the four biographical accounts of Jesus’ life are trustworthy as collected eyewitness accounts. This does not mean that the gospels are like video-graphic evidence, as ancient biographies do not function in the modern way; they are instead collected accounts that are then compelled together to tell a biographical account with a particular audience in mind in each biography. This is why each gospel has a different ‘flavour’, have different order of events, and smaller details are changed- however the overall events remain the same, and to that end are good enough at giving us the personality, behaviours, and overall message of Jesus, yet with a degree of humility as this is second hand knowledge. However, in a person who is the embodiment of truth, when writers and the writers writing on the very words and actions of Jesus in His context write, the degree of speculation on God is narrower then one who is just thinking 2000 years later from the person of Jesus in the flesh because a lot more can get in the way across the gulf of time and place- my emotions, my bias, my faulty thinking. This isn’t to equate the gospel witnesses’ with the person of Jesus Himself- but it’s closer than us.

In these biographies, we get the clear sense that Jesus is the embodiment of God, and as such to listen and observe these depictions of Jesus is to listen and get a depiction of God’s personality, behaviours, and overall message. To this end then, we are starting to gain some insight into God’s point of view of reality through Jesus. However, this does not mean we have God’s birds eye view, or have become somehow objective, because we are still subjective creatures. Rather, I subjectively might genuinely know our place, destiny, value (etc.) in the cosmos, but vicariously through relationship with the Incarnated God- whereby this ‘knowing’ acknowledges the reality of the other as truly other, while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of conversation and dialogue between the knower and the thing known. In other words the incarnation of God might give us a level of humble confidence. Humble, because we are the subjective creatures of God who cannot exhaustively understand Jesus. Yet confident, because we have a vicarious view of the human ‘from somewhere’ through Jesus and His own words and actions. The fullness of God is revealed in Jesus, yet I dare not claim I can plumb the depth of that infinite fullness. And yet, whatever more is discovered cannot then contradict what we see in Jesus’ limited words, interactions, and confessed and embodied worldview; there might be more, but this moreness doesn’t supersede what is made clear in the time God was humanly visible.

As it relates to other topics Jesus spoke on, there might be degrees of our own metaphysical speculation we have to be mindful of due to the gulf between our time and place, and also because Jesus Himself gives limited details and nuances on what He speaks on. As a rule of thumb, the less grounded a metaphysical claim is, the more flexible our thinking can be, and the more grounded a metaphysical claim is, the less flexible we can be- all in all because of Jesus’ addresses things in word and action. An example of an aspect that has some ungrounded metaphysical claims, but has a lot that is also grounded vicariously Jesus because of His words and actions, is eschatology. Jesus speaks on the standard Jewish resurrection belief, and He Himself rises again from the dead, and says He will return One day to restore the world- so we can say that this is true that Jesus believed in a future judgement where people rise again from the dead and will bring judgement. But, something that  Jesus doesn’t speak on is the exact nature and scope of New Creation  in a universe we know is huge, might have aliens in it and other planets etc. So in that sense, we have permission to be more metaphysically speculative on those details as they are not addressed in Jesus’ words and actions. Another example would be the Trinity. We can viciously ground the Trinity in that Jesus appears to be God, yet honours His God (that he calls “Father”) as God, and then He affirms God-as-Spirit as one that is coming after Him, yet still being thoroughly Jewish and thus monotheistic. The Trinity then becomes an evadible theology of God somehow One, yet also having a Threeness. However, we cannot ground the exact contours of this Trinity, and even Jesus calling God “Father” does not mean that God has a penis, and so what it means in the gender of God might have some metaphysical speculation, as well as other parts of the inner life of God. A final example would be demonology. Whilst we can vicariously ground some of the reality of evil in Jesus his words and actions in that He does seem to speak to and work against a spiritual personified force. But, in the same breath, Jesus doesn’t talk about the origins of this reality, or exactly what this reality is in great detail- and so some of our metaphysical speculation there will be a lot less grounded, and cannot even be vicariously grounded in Jesus, and as such we have permission to speculate on certain parts of this topic. Using this later example, it’s why someone might not do what some progressive do and not believe in the reality of personified evil- because Jesus shows us there is an evil Something. But equally also might not do what conservatives do, and that is to say with confidence the exact origins, the exact shape, and the exact hierarchy of such demons, because Jesus doesn’t. 

However, what are we to make of both the Hebrew Scriptures, and then the remainder of the New Testament, as we engage in theological formation? To start with, Jesus helps us construct a meta-narrative. Jesus appears to affirm the narrative that emerged in the prophets, that there would indeed be a resurrection from the dead and a day of judgement where God would make all things right. Jesus affirming this narrative means we too can affirm this narrative. Jesus also affirms this narrative in an embodied way by dying yet rising again from the dead, and then insisting in His accession that He would return in the same way He left. This affirms an embodied return of Jesus, and an embodied future, and a type of judgement that makes a new and restored world. Jesus also affirms the Holy Spirit as God’s presence to be with His people once He leaves, which affirms Jesus’ ongoing presence and transforming work continuing between His accession and return. And to that end, we start to get a picture of a meta narrative by the words of God Himself. As to the earlier narrative of God’s dealings in the world prior to Jesus, Jesus seems to see this narrative through the lens of His peoples story as revealed in the Jewish scriptures. To that end, He appears to have a relationship with His people’s scriptures that is both binding and authoritative, and flexible and surprising. In the binding and authoritative angle, Jesus reveres the Torah and the Prophets, and does not dismiss its importance. And yet, He also has a flexible and surprising relationship to His peoples scriptures, which enables Him to reinterpret His peoples scriptures in light of Himself. Synthesizing these two truths, it can be said that Jesus sees His peoples scriptures as God’s earlier story that should not be forgotten nor put to one side, yet also has to be seen as a story longing for an ending that indeed climaxes in Himself. In this way, we learn from Jesus to look at the Hebrew Scriptures ourselves as reverent, important, and filled with wisdom- yet needing also to see these scriptures in light of Jesus and as needing to be submitted unto Jesus. This both gives us both a view of the Hebrew Scriptures, but it also invites us to see scriptures dealings with things such as origins in light of their original intended contexts, and as a story that then climaxes in Jesus. Jesus also becomes an interpretive lens in reading these older scriptures. This approach is later exemplified by the writers of the letters of the New Testament. 

Having gained insight through Jesus how to treat both Himself, and His peoples scriptures, we then need to explore His relationship to the letters that follow. The earliest writers of the New Testament appeared to believe that they saw their writings as somewhat authoritative. Whether they saw their writings in the same vein as the Hebrew Scriptures is not as well known, yet they nonetheless saw their musings in ways no contemporary would speak of his/her own writing. To that end, there is a level of confidence that is shared by the authors of the New Testament as to the status of their own writings. These writings were later canonised alongside the gospels of Jesus in the 3rd century; from the end of the Apostolic Age, there has been a general consensus among the churches that there were 27 books in the New Testament, yet it was later codified as so as false beliefs about Christian doctrine started to emerge based on other later writings. The level of proximity to the events of Jesus give these letters a certain level of ’street credibility’ that’s unmatched by later writings. To that end, there is at least a level of confidence in trusting in these letters as special in ways other writings are not.

Giving all of this, there is now an account of the meta narrative of the cosmos that can help us discern how to then theologise. The writers of the earliest letters take the Hebrew Scriptures as-story-unto-Jesus, Jesus life, death, resurrection, accession, and promised return, and mix them together to address ethical and theological concerns as they arise in community; in doing so, they model a means of theology for us. They see the early scriptures as a story that culminates in Jesus- with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection becoming the fulcrum point- and that then casts a future forward to New Creation, that then gives these writers room for reflecting in light of the past, yet fixated on Jesus, with an keen eye towards the future. To use a metaphor I have heard, it is like discovering a new Shakespeare play that has with it William Shakespeare as a character, and yet also has the final Act missing, yet also scribble notes on how the play should end nonetheless. Taking the early acts of the play into account, you don’t repeat the earlier act when the missing Act is preformed, but neither do you ignore both the character of William Shakespeare story arc, and also the scripple ending notes- you incorporate the story that has been, take into crucial account the fulcrum point of William Shakespeare story arc, and work towards the ending. To that end, a performer faithfully improvises the rest of the Act. In the same way, the writers of the New Testament ‘perform’ the final Act in their own contexts as they seek to address ethical and theological concerns in light of what they do know about the overarching story of scripture. In the same way, we do this when we address ethical concerns of our own time. 

As such, in the formation of theology, we turn to the rich tradition of theology, and to scripture-as-a-story-with-Jesus-front-and-centre as the way we then explore topics as they emerge. A lot has changed in history, we have made many discoveries, and how things are now as compared to the first century and wildly different (not to mention, even the scriptures might give permission to certain metaphysical speculation, as previously explored). As such, as topics emerge, I apply this framework of theological/ethical improvisation. As such, it’s neither ‘anything goes’ but neither is it a strict approach to topics. We seek to discern what is right in light of the earlier ‘acts’, as climaxed in Jesus, in honouring the theology of the New Testament, and in working towards the ends found in New Creation. Topics are then a conversation of how to faithfully move forward; however these topics are not on equal footing. Rather, it is like a parent and an adult child, whereby the parent is the meta narrative, and the topic is like the adult child. The dialogue between the two is mature and takes seriously the considerations of the other, and the meta narrative might even be appropriately re-understood in light of the topic, and certainly visa versa. To this end, topics can be from many disciplines such as psychology, philosophy, politics, science, and more more. In this rich dialogue, certain topics are nuanced out, as is a deeper refined understanding of the bigger picture. And of course, intermixed into this dialogue is ongoing prayer and reflection as meditated by the Holy Spirit, who continues to refine what it means to think theologically as we move forward. To this end, rich theologies are formed, and perhaps re-formed over time, whilst still not neglecting that which we find in the person of Jesus and the meta narrative He embodies in His teachings, His view of scripture, His life, His death, His resurrection, His accession, and His eventual return. 

As for accounting the validity of dialoguing with these other topics, we can do so as we even see their theological validity of containing truth in light of a theology of truth outside the realms of Christian faith. This theology of finding truth outside the Christian realm is as follows: 1) Because humans are made in God’s Image, we should not be surprised when their deep DNA comes through; as such people can touch on truth even without explicit connection to God. Think of a child to a parent- such a child will have the DNA of their parents, and as such express characteristics that are a ‘chip of the old block’. To that end, their can be art, philosophy, culture, religions (etc.) in which parts of it reflect who God is without any reference to God, all based on their deepest instincts as Image Bearers. However, they are also like a child that has rebelled against their parents, meaning even if certain characteristics come through, their might be a suppressing of the truth that needs un-suppressing through coming back into alignment with who they are. This is where the theologian can help cultivate and bring into completion the deepest instincts of these truths, and also remove the parts of these truths that have become corrupted by rebellion. 2) Because God made the world, there can be truth embedded into the very creational order itself; as such in studying the created order we can learn so much, maybe even things about God and His relationship to the world, and as such shouldn’t surprised where wisdom is learnt in this way. To that end, there can be studies on things like the human mind, or the body, or the physical universe, that will tell us things about ourselves and the world we inhabit that theology can be in conversation with. However, even in God’s creating, there was a mystery, a raw energy, and a wildness to such creating, that to simply observe something because it is in creation and assume it is good is naive to the complexity and untameness of the world. In addition, let’s never forget that there is raw data and then there is the interpretation of said raw data- sometimes we can be so quick to conflate the two. This is where the theologian can bring both some humility around reckoning with the truth that God’s created world is complex and untamed, and can also bring a different interpretive grid to data that is theological, and can foster said data in Christlike ways. 3) Because God is also wanting to redeem all things, the work of the Spirit will always seek to implicitly draw out that which is of God and can be redeemed towards Christlike ways, and as such we should not be surprised to find God at work in areas we didn’t think God would be working- whether that be in other religions, cultures, movements, and the contours of the complexity of peoples lives. However, human rebellion can easily take us in wayward direction, and so theologians can partner with what the Spirit is doing more explicitly to see the work of the Spirit to supported by followers of Jesus. And finally, 4) Because of the work of Christ and the Spirit already across the culture, we shouldn’t be surprised when people do good, as the Christian revolution has seeped its way into the public psych- think of the concepts of humility and human rights, or institutions such as public hospitals and schools, all of which were invented by the christian religion. However, without God, these institutions and beliefs can lose their footing and framing around Jesus, and as such theologians can come alongside and re-frame and foster these things around the Ways of Jesus to bring out its best features. For these reasons, there is genuine learning that can be had when dialogue in topics occur, and it is also for these reasons that theologians are needed in and through all theological dialogue in this theological improvisational work. 

And so, pulling this all together: 1) we trust the gospel writes enough to give us an ‘good enough’ picture of Jesus. This in no way means that these are video accounts of Jesus without bias or audiences in mind, but that instead we are getting a ‘good enough’ insight. 2) Jesus claims to be the embodiment of God, and so we are getting a ‘birds eye view’ of reality vicariously through Jesus’ words and actions. This in no ways mean we have plunged the depth of Jesus and His view on all matters and things by simply reading on Jesus, but that we can at least start to get a glimpse into the deeper parts of reality by reading about Him. 3) Jesus speaks on certain topics clearly, and on other topics He doesn’t go into all the great details to account for all of time, history, and later discoveries. To what He says that are more grounded in reality, we can be less flexible on, and to other topics He doesn’t speak clearly on, we can be more speculative. 4) Jesus offers us a meta-narrative through His words and actions. This does not mean we get the complete picture, but we can at least get the contours of what God is, and will ulitmently do, in the world. At this point, we now have a trustworthy Jesus that offers us a trustworthy meta-narrative. 5) Jesus offers us a view of His peoples scriptures (The Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament) and so we can emulate how He treats and uses His peoples scriptures- they are binding and authoritative and flexible and surprising, treating it as a story that needs completion in Himself. Now we have both a trustworthy Jesus offering us a trustworthy metatnarrative, and a view on how to treat the Old Testament and use it unto Jesus and New Creation. 6) The early church considered their writings as somewhat sacred, and this is collectively affirmed in the various councils that followed which codified and already consensus in the early church. Using the above, we see the earliest theologians believing in a trustworthy Jesus offering us a trustworthy metatnarrative, and having a view on how to treat the Old Testament and using it unto Jesus and New Creation, and generating theology in light of this to address contempt issues in their times. 7) We can observe this and now apply this to our times- using the metaphor of improvisation as a way of discerning how we would theologise in our times in light of our cultural moments, and of our discoveries and advances in different fields- to that end we get these cultural moments and discoveries to have conversation with this theological narrative. 8) We can ironically affirm the the need to engage in these cultural moments and discoveries by understanding our own theology of revelation, and therefore then engaging in these things as theologians, and thus developing new theologies along the way.